Tue | Feb 18, 2020

Peter Espeut | The reasonableness of belief [II]

Published:Friday | December 6, 2019 | 12:36 AM

Believers are not benighted fools, bedeviled by superstition and deluded by ancient fables and myths as anti-Christians would have us believe. Religious faith is often grounded in personal experience, tested over time.

Last week, I set out to show that even though we cannot prove that God exists by definition, pure spirit cannot be apprehended by scientific enquiry or pure reason – belief in God can be shown to be reasonable, or at least, not unreasonable.

I produced three sources of material that philosophers have used as evidence for the existence of God; not proof, mind you, but evidence to be weighed by the reasonable person.

First, there is the experience of wonder at the fact that there is a world at all! To postulate that there is a creator (God) who is the “ground of being” is not in itself unreasonable (in metaphysics, one thing is said to ‘ground’ another when the first in some way accounts for the being or existence of the second). The real issue is whether it is true or not.

Second, sometimes it seems that particular values we include in our value system came from outside ourselves. Sceptics may say that they result from reconditioning by parents, church, or society, rather than that they are somehow innate, and, therefore, evidence of the existence of God.

Third, the greatest single source of religious belief may be the experience of our own dissatisfaction with any of the objects we can attain in this world. Feeding our appetites does not lead to lasting satisfaction, and afterwards, we are still left with questions such as: What is the meaning of life? Where will I find lasting happiness?

Gregory of Nyssa argued that humanity strives for SOMETHING beyond this world, and it seems reasonable to posit that SOMETHING as the ground of our striving rather than to write off our striving as absurd.

This week, I will advance three more sources.

Fourth, there is the human experience of hope. We all hope for peace in the world, good health, and so on, but that is not the kind of hope we are talking about here. Humanity seems to have a general attitude of hopefulness in the face of an uncertain future.

It seems that in even seemingly impossible situations, the human spirit has the capacity to hope against hope for the best. Even if a nuclear holocaust devoured the Earth, people would go on hoping amid the ruins. It seems to be natural for us to hope.

French philosopher Gabriel Marcel argued that our capacity to hope suggests an unconscious grasp of the reality of God as the ground and guarantor of human history, of human destiny.


Fifth, there is the phenomenon of mystical experience. A large number of people from various cultures have laid claim to direct experience of the divine. Some may have been mad, and some may have been bad. Some may have been deluded, and some may have lied to gain benefit. However, many mystics have described their experiences and impressed their contemporaries as being genuine.

Muslim mystics describe encounters with Allah. Jewish mystics describe the Shekinah, or “Glory of the Lord”.

Such a weight of human testimony of encounters with the divine from so many different cultures cannot be so easily dismissed.

Sixth, there is the phenomenon of the knowability of the world by humans. Bernard Lonergan SJ pointed out that the world has a structure which the human mind can penetrate by means of its own processes (for example, science). How do we account for this? It did not have to be so? There could have been a lack of fit between the world and the human mind.

But there is not! In fact, there is considerable harmony between them. Lonergan argues that the world’s intelligibility requires us to posit the existence of a creative mind, analogous to but infinitely transcending the human mind, by which the cosmos was brought into being.

If any one of these six approaches is less than convincing, the cumulative power of them all might be. John Henry Newman argued that like a jigsaw puzzle, they fit together to converge on the conclusion that there is a God.

If it is more reasonable to believe in God than not, therefore to remain an unbeliever would be irrational.

We are now in the season of Advent, the season of hope and expectation. There is reason to the season.

The Rev Peter Espeut is a philosopher and theologian and is dean of studies at St Michael’s Theological College. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.